“Life is Beautiful”, even with no home

Documentary film festival DOXA returns for its 23rd annual iteration, bringing with it a breadth of films which aim to reflect perspectives from across Canada and around the world. This year’s program includes dozens of films covering themes such as identity, humanity and community, like Mustafa Uzuner’s La Cancha, showcasing a community of basketball players in Montreal; and Bita Joudaki’s Persian Pride, whose story about a 1990s Iranian youth gang in North Vancouver navigates history and stereotypes.

Life is Beautiful also touches on identity and humanity. But rather than turning the camera outward, director Mohamed Jabaly instead turns the camera towards himself, documenting his experience of statelessness in Norway as he is unable to return to his hometown of Gaza City.

Now, nearly 10 years after his initial arrival in Scandinavia, Jabaly hopes to share his story in a documentary showcasing the early years of his experience and what it has meant for his identity as a Palestinian even so far from home.

“This is the story of Life is Beautiful,” says Jabaly. “I wanted to show what my life was like. What it’s like to be a Palestinian and all the obstacles we face.”

Life Is Beautiful director Mohamed Jabaly. | Photo by Mohamed Jabaly

Becoming stranded

Jabaly first came to Norway in 2014 to visit and study, aiming to pursue what would eventually become two post-secondary degrees in filmmaking and fine arts. But making the trip from Gaza wasn’t simple. As Jabaly notes, Gaza’s borders have only been open for intermittent periods in recent years. As such, while a brief opening allowed Jabaly to travel into Norway nearly 10 years ago, subsequent border closures immensely complicated his efforts to return.

To make matters worse, when Jabaly applied for residency in Norway, the government did not accept his Palestinian passport. As such, Jabaly was left stranded, rendered effectively stateless.

“I was surprised to discover that I was considered stateless when I came to Norway,” says Jabaly. “I’ve never been questioned about my identity when I was in Palestine. No one questioned who I am. When I came to Norway, I started to get all of the questions about home.”

Unable to turn home, Jabaly decided to make the most of his uniquely challenging situation, turning on the camera as soon as things took a turn for the worse. In Life is Beautiful, he documents the kafkaesque bureaucratic situation, along with the kindness and support of his host family and the implications it all had on himself and his identity.

“The first moment I realized I was stuck I immediately said I am going to start recording what is happening to me,” he says. “I started recording my diary not knowing when it would finish. I knew it would end in a film, but I didn’t know how long it would take.”

Life Is Beautiful tells the poignant story of Director Mohamed Jabaly becoming stranded and stateless, far away from home. | Photo by Mohamed Jabaly

Challenges reverberate across countries, decades

The result is a full-length film whose story highlights those challenging early years and extends into 2021 during the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jabaly says the film aims to showcase the humanity that is often overshadowed by statehood and identity.

“This is partly why I decided to make the film. I hoped to showcase that I am a human like everyone else. I have a right to exist like everyone else,” he says.

And while the story of Life is Beautiful begins in 2014, Jabaly says the story is meant to reflect the reverberating effects of displacement in Palestine ever since the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing and mass displacement of Palestinians shortly after the end of World War II.

He hopes audiences can recognize how the effects of occupation can often begin decades and continents away, and become aware of the situation they are in now.

“What’s happening in Gaza didn’t start now. This started before 1948,” says Jabaly. “My father lived this, my grandfather lived this. We are still living in limbo and it won’t stop until we stop living under occupation.”

DOXA takes place at various locations in Vancouver from May 2 to 12.

For more information about Life is Beautiful and DOXA, visit: www.doxafestival.ca

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